The craft brewing movement, undeniably a boon, arguably has a blind spot: the old bock beer “season”. Reduced as the tradition is, into the 1980s beer fans duly anticipated the few springtime bocks still available. In Canada, in Ontario and Quebec, Molson offered a Spring Bock and Labatt had its Super Bock. Over the border you might find a bock from Genesee in Rochester, and other examples.
In general, these were darker than regular beer, and the Super Bock was a point or so higher in alcohol. Label images may be seen online, and even some reviews as a few brands lasted into the early craft era. Genesee still makes its bock, as well.
I remember these beers as mild-tasting, with a light molasses or dark sugar note.
On bock’s origin, beer historical studies has advanced in the last decade but not to alter the generally-accepted account, that bock started as a strong beer, made partly from wheat, in Einbeck Germany in the early 1300s.
The original, made by top-fermentation, was later adopted and altered, goes the most reliable explanation, in distant Bavaria in the south. Einbeck, the place of origin, was corrupted in the Bavarian dialect to ein bock. A key stage in the evolution was brewing the beer by bottom-fermentation, the lager way.
Today’s Weizen Bock of Germany, a strong, hearty wheat brew, may recall the older style since it is top-fermented and uses malted wheat along with the barley malt.
Because bock in German also means goat, the idea of the goat and its proverbial kick became associated with bock beer. Hence, images of goats appeared on labels and related advertising.
From the late-1800s to present day more fanciful or “heroic” explanations appeared of bock’s origin, some still connected to goats. For example, that the term bock described the effect on the loser in a drinking contest of the winner’s tankard.
The long-discredited sediment-in-the-vat theory – that bock is drawn from the dregs of aging vats – is still occasionally repeated. It must have seemed silly even in the late-1800s as few press accounts then repeated the tale.
An interesting account appeared in 1936 in a Plattsburgh, New York newspaper, taking some trouble over the details. The part about toasting the fertility goddess, which I haven’t seen elsewhere, makes sense. The idea is, bock honours the last season’s malt and hops, and is kind of midwife to the anticipated bounty of a new season’s fertility.
In America bock season was from beginning of March until early May. March is the German time, as well, but the period was often extended in North America. Perhaps this was due to American brewers issuing only one bock, generally a dark beer. The Germans offered variations such the lighter-coloured Helles, and strong double bocks, in other seasons.
Craft brewing hasn’t quite ignored bock. In Ontario a few brands appear each spring although some use unorthodox ingredients such as coffee, chocolate, or smoked malt.
The beers usually are quite good but few really get at the German palate, an intense, molasses-like taste in which mineral German hops play only a supporting role.
The Doppel-Hirsch, from Germany, is a classic bock albeit lighter in body than some. Doppel, the extra strong dark bock, is almost a separate style but a signature richness informs all dark bock.
There are yet further variations, eg. the very strong, amber Eisbock – all are worth exploring.
There is enough resonance in the popular memory of the old bock tradition, but craft brewing has tended in many different, often novel directions. A formal return of the old bock beer season should be encouraged by craft brewers.
Note re images: the first image is from an April 30, 1935 news article in the Commercial Advertiser, Potsdam, NY, sourced from the NYS digital newspaper archive, here. The second image is from the 1936 article, in the same archive, linked in the text. Images are used for educational and research purposes. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to their owner or authorized users. All feedback welcomed.